Big Country – Small Nation? by Sue Turnbull


In thinking through the concept of the ‘small nation’ and its utility as a lens through which to consider television production both historically and at the present moment, I immediately began to think about Australia, and whether the concept might be useful in this context. This is not quite so daft as it might appear because although Australia may be a geographically big country, it is arguably a ‘small to medium size nation’ when it comes to its population [23.7 million ( as compared to the Netherlands with a population of 17 million (].

As Stuart Cunningham and Elizabeth Jacka pointed out in 1996 (when Australia’s population was only 17.6 million), Australia’s relatively small viewing public has continued to have implications for a television system that from the 1980 onwards has comprised two public broadcasting networks (the ABC and SBS), and three commercial channels (7, 9 and 10).[1] Since then, all of these networks have been competing to leverage funds to supply content for a nation that reportedly watches much less TV than the Americans or the Britons.

But when Australians do watch, they like to watch Australian content. As a result, the state has regularly intervened in a ‘protectionist’ way to try and ensure the existence of a viable TV industry and to ensure the diversity of Australian programming.  It might be noted that since 1956 when regular TV broadcasts began, Australian content has been up against early and on-going competition from American imports (often on the commercial channels), and the British  (usually on the ABC).  Indeed, in my own genre of interest, the TV crime drama (, it was not until 1964 that Australia achieved its own home grown crime drama series, Homicide, that was as much revered for its Melbourne streetscapes and bush scenes as it was for its dramatic content [Seven Network 1964-1977].

But the television landscape is changing in Australia as it is elsewhere as new cable and internet service providers begin to gain traction although a bit later here than elsewhere. The take-up of pay TV services in the 1990s in Australia was extremely limited due to the very high charges, while more recently Australia’s internet roll-out has been abysmally slow and inadequate.

Nevertheless, change is afoot. On October 30, 2015, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the total budget for Australian TV series, serials, mini-series and telemovies was down a troubling 21% from the previous year. Not surprisingly, the volume of Australian produced TV drama has as a result sunk to its lowest level in almost a decade, from 472 to 401 hours. (

This drop is arguably a product of a number of factors that include swingeing budget cuts to the two public broadcasters, and increasing competition from other providers.  Australians have also been described as ‘world-beaters’ in the realm of online piracy, largely as a result of the poor service provision and delayed Australian release dates of highly popular shows like Game of Thrones  (

The solution proposed by Screen Australia’s chief executive, Graeme Mason, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, is clear. What Australia apparently needs is its own Game Of Thrones, given that ‘Northern Ireland’s entire economy and tourism has been changed’ by the choice to film the series there.  In Mason’s opinion ‘Foreign funded local is key’ to the future of the Australian TV industry.  It should be noted that these comments were made as part of a political campaign to get a federal government tax incentive, known as the producer offset, lifted from 20 to 40 per cent. as part of a strategy to re-invigorate the Australian screen industry more generally.

What this means is that a  ‘small to medium’ nation like Australia with a small and increasingly vulnerable television industry is currently in the process of trying to shore up their local production industry by attracting foreign investment in whatever way they can.  This, of course, is hardly a new story.  Foreign investment in feature film production has been a reality since the 1980s. But just what the implications of this new TV landscape and the pursuit of the ‘foreign funded local’  will be for Australian television drama remains to be seen.   Interesting times.

[1]  Cunningham Stuart and Jacka, Elizabeth ‘Australian Television in World Markets’, in New Patterns in Global Television: Peripheral Vision, Oxford: Oxfrod University Press, 1996, pp. 195-228.


Sue Turnbull is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Wollongong.

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